Was it really just last July that the term “area reviews” first came into the FE lexicon? Since then, much time and money has been dedicated to the project of redrawing the sector so that it ends up with “fewer, larger, more resilient and efficient providers”.
It was billed as a once-in-a-generation opportunity to overhaul FE to ensure that it would be in a healthy state to address the challenges in the years ahead.
In March, then-skills minister Nick Boles stressed that this was a one-off chance, telling college leaders at the Education and Training Foundation’s leadership summit: “You cannot sit out these area reviews and say ‘Let’s see how the chips fall and continue on roughly as we are, and [we] can always come back later in this Parliament and have another go’…once [the restructuring] fund is used up, you are basically on your own.”
So has the area review programme fulfilled its promise? It’s difficult not to feel that it simply hasn’t. While the better-than-expected settlement for FE in the Autumn Statement was undoubtedly a massive relief, it drained the process of much of its urgency. And there are still too many disincentives to merger in place.
As FErret suggests, the prospect of your college’s Ofsted grade and success rates being dragged down by taking on a struggling neighbour is enough to trigger a massive flashing red light on most chief executive’s dashboards. And why would a college in a healthy financial state willingly take the risk of assimilating their cash-strapped neighbour’s debts?
Has the area review programme fulfilled its promise? It’s difficult not to feel that it simply hasn’t
It’s all very well for civil servants to stress soberly the need for colleges to rise above institutional self-interest and focus on the greater good, but a principal’s ultimate responsibility must be to their learners. Given the policy turbulence that has undermined the sector in recent times, it’s little wonder if many leaders are tempted to sit tight and wait and see what happens before grasping at radical changes – which carry no guarantee of success and which cannot be undone.
It’s no surprise that, while some colleges have willingly formed new alliances on their own terms to pre-empt the area review process, many more have decided to ride out the storm. And for all the talk of the need to grasp the nettle, there are plenty of crucially important details behind the process that haven’t been quite as straightforward to negotiate as some in Whitehall may have hoped.
The FE rumour mill is full of stories of high-profile mergers being delayed, if not scuppered, by the banks refusing to share the government’s enthusiasm for structural change.
And the case of Riseholme College demonstrates that mergers and acquisitions in FE are anything but straightforward.
After countless hours of number-crunching, data analysis, negotiations and meetings, the recommendations of the first waves of reviews have been undeniably conservative, even in the countries’ biggest cities.
Birmingham’s area review ended up recommending one merger; Manchester’s just two. The case for persuading more geographically distant colleges, particularly those with strong standards and finances, to embrace their struggling neighbours is only going to get more difficult.
Plenty of the principals still awaiting their own reviews have been told to expect that the reports will offer little more than an “as you were”. And, of course, with Brexit-related economic uncertainty on the cards and civil servants still grappling with the implications of FE being brought back into the Department for Education, prudent principals could be forgiven for keeping quiet and waiting to see what happens next.